Building a culture of belonging for women in CS degrees

In an interview with Vogue earlier this year, much celebrated software engineer and outspoken advocate for women in technology Tracy Chou recalls the first computer science class she ever took. She walked into the class, thinking it would be a familiar environment since she grew up as the child of two programmer parents in Silicon Valley. Instead she felt put off by the pronouncements from male students in the class that the subject was ‘a piece of cake’.

This is an experience shared by many women, both those who enter technical degree with some programming experience under their belt and those that start as complete beginners. Maria Klawe, President of Harvey Mudd College, talks about the effect that this sort of behaviour can have on other students, particularly women.

In any first year CS course there will be students who are obsessed with computers. Some may have been tinkering from as young as 5 or 6 years old, while others will have discovered a passion in their teens. These students often demonstrate an extreme level of excitement for introductory courses that is not shared by their peers. This motivation can translate into a tendency to ask sophisticated questions or speak out frequently in class in order to demonstrate their existing knowledge or out of a genuine desire to connect with the teacher on an intellectual level.

Even if this behaviour is only exhibited by a small handful of students, others in the class begin to assume that this level of knowledge is reflective of the average standard and begin to question their place in the course. Whether this behaviour is designed to displace the confidence of other students is largely irrelevant, but it’s effect is not. If this behaviour is not quickly and appropriately addressed by teaching staff it can have a significant and lasting impact on students’ confidence level and sense of belonging.

The approach adopted by the CS faculty as Harvey Mudd College was a simple one. Staff were advised to take the student aside at the first signs of this behaviour, thank them for their enthusiasm, explain the effect their behaviour has on other students and invite them to continue these conversations one-on-one outside of the classroom. Anecdotally, students who were approached in this way were very receptive to these suggestions (and often flattered) and the behaviour was almost completely eliminated.

The well known xkcd comic talks about maths, but it’s sentiment is equally applicable to CS – one woman’s performance is seen to be representative of all women’s abilities, while one man’s performance is representative only of his own abilities. Female students in CS degrees feel the weight of expectation. They feel that they are highly visible and, by extension, more closely scrutinised. This phenomenon, which has been labelled ‘stereotype threat’, has been shown to reduce women’s interest and performance in STEM disciplines. In the context of university study, it often translates to a reluctance to ask questions or speak out in class.

Hacker School have come up with an ingenious way to make all students feel more comfortable asking questions. Their manual for people admitted to their immersive program outlines a set of social guidelines that have been put in place to create the best possible learning environment and to build a culture of curiosity. The first of these rules is ‘no feigning surprise’ which means that you’re not allowed to act shocked when someone admits to not knowing something, however obvious you may think that something is. Responding to someone with a ‘well actually’ is also off limits. (Read the full Hacker School User’s Manual over here).

Culture outside the classroom matters too. In my faculty building, there are signs on the door to the women’s toilet saying something to the effect of ‘these toilets are for women ONLY’. Anecdotally, these signs were placed on the door to discourage male students (and perhaps staff) from using the female toilets because they are more conveniently located and there was an assumption that there are so few women in the faculty that this behaviour would go by unnoticed. This is one of the subtle ways that women’s sense of belonging can be slowly eroded.

The boy hacker stereotype can play heavily on the minds of CS students who do not fit the predominant mould. In a Carnegie Mellon study, male and female CS students were asked to describe their classmates and the results were unsurprising. Invariable, students described their peers as being ‘in love with computers, myopically focussed on [them] to the exclusion of all else’, emerging from their keyboard once-in-a-while with “monitor tan”. 69% of the female students interviewed (compared to only 32% of the men) did not identify with this stereotype. Comparing themselves to their peers who ‘dream in code’ can leads women to feel self-doubt about their ‘fit’ for CS which can contribute to their decisions about whether to continue to pursue their studies. A university culture that rewards and reinforces the singly focussed programmer norm can be incredibly alienating for female students, the majority of whom do not identify with this ideal.

Although there are no longer overt reasons preventing women from entering CS degrees, there is a lingering ‘gender asbestos‘ built into the practices of faculties which make women’s equal participation difficult. One of the persistent symptoms is a culture that fails to promote a sense of belonging for women and other minorities in CS degrees. By taking steps to combat these cultural roadblocks both inside and outside the classroom, faculties can contribute to building an environment that better supports diversity.

Do you have any suggestions about what CS faculties could do to improve their culture to better support female students and other minorities?

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4 comments

  1. karishmachanglani · January 4, 2015

    This is a beautiful post. I love how this points out the subtlety of gender barriers in CS

    • JMG · January 4, 2015

      Thanks, Karishma. I appreciate the feedback 🙂

  2. quarbby · March 1, 2015

    Great blog 🙂 And you’re a great and inspiring woman too! (From my interaction with you during the Anita Borg Scholarship Retreat in Japan)

    • JMG · March 1, 2015

      Thanks for the kind words, Lynnette. You’re pretty amazing yourself!

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